Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Picture: DAVID KAWAI/BLOOMBERG
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Picture: DAVID KAWAI/BLOOMBERG

In the heady days of 2016 it seemed for a brief, shining moment that an era of shameless political fundraising in Canada was on the wane. In May of that year, Kathleen Wynne, then the Liberal premier of Ontario, announced that her government would end the practice of selling private access to cabinet ministers and the premier in return for five-figure donations from individuals, corporations and unions.

It was naked influence-peddling. Wynne’s ministers were given quotas and told to hit up wealthy stakeholders in the economic sectors affected by their departments. In exchange, donors were given facetime with the person who controlled their regulatory fate. That ended with legislation that banned corporate and union donations and drastically reduced the individual donation limit.

The federal government had done something similar in 2003, and most other provinces have since followed suit. But lost in this progress is the fact that individual donations are still too high in Ottawa and the provinces. Higher donation limits invite abuse. In 2016, the Trudeau government was in the cash-for-access hot seat. In one notable case, former finance minister Bill Morneau attended a fundraiser in the Halifax mansion of a land developer for which donors paid $1,500 each to attend. Morneau was in prebudget consultations at the time.

And now Ontario, once a harbinger of a more democratic politics, is at growing risk of bringing back the seedy practice of cash for access. In 2018, premier Doug Ford increased the total donation limit and scrapped the part of the 2016 law that banned provincial MPs from attending fundraising events. His government also removed a rule that obliged individuals to attest that the money they donated was their own, raising fears of forbidden corporate and union money coming in through a loophole. And now his government has tabled legislation to double the individual donation limit.

Money can be toxic in a democracy, and as always the dose makes the poison. As long as individuals can continue to donate thousands of dollars, there will be the perception — and very real possibility — of the buying and selling of influence. /Toronto, March 1

The Globe And Mail

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